Breathing is something we do so many times every day that is easy to take it for granted. However, there is a long tradition of focusing on the breath to bring awareness and to ultimately relieve stress and ease pain.
Did you know that your breath can reflect intensified emotions? If you are sad, you may sigh a lot; angry, you may breathe rapidly. When scared, our breathing becomes shallow and we may hold our breath without even realising. Using mindful attention, this awareness of our breathing can allow us to tune in to where we are at.
Emotions are important for the way we live: whether it is contentment making us happy or fear telling us to protect ourselves. But, they can also get so intense they feel they are tearing us apart or taking us over.
A joint study, “Respiratory Feedback in the Generation of Emotion,” carried out by staff from the University of Quebec and the University of Louvain in Canada show a clear and direct link between emotions and breathing patterns.
The study involved two groups of volunteers. Group 1 was asked to produce four emotions (joy, anger, fear and sadness) through the use of memory, fantasy and by modifying their breathing pattern. For each of the emotions under examination, scientists monitored and analysed the various breathing components — speed, location in the lungs, amplitude — and used their findings to draw up a list of breathing instructions.
These instructions were then given to a second group of volunteers who had been told only that they were participating in a study of the cardiovascular impact of breathing styles. Members of Group 2 were asked to breathe according to the instructions drawn up from the earlier experiment. At the end of the 45-minute breathing session, participants completed a questionnaire designed to elicit a range of information, including details of their emotional responses.
The results were unmistakable. To varying, but significant degrees, the four breathing patterns induced the anticipated four emotions.
Interestingly, we can manage our emotions, in part at least, with our breathing. When you consider how hard it can be to change your emotions using your thoughts, this is a powerful finding. When someone who usually has calm, deep breaths takes shallow breaths over a prolonged period, they may begin to feel anxiety induced by a lack of oxygen. Someone used to shallow breathing can feel that all the time, without even being aware of it.
There is also a physical reason for some of this. A low level of stress may cause your breath to become shallower, lowering oxygen levels in the blood. This is sensed by the brain as stress, and your body responds with faster and shallower breath causing oxygen levels to fall further and causing a vicious circle. This is why when someone is stressed, we may advise them to ‘take a slow, deep breath’. Deep, slow breathing into the belly is a strong antidote to anxiety, fear and anger.
Slower, deeper, more measured breaths stimulate parts of the brain and nervous system responsible for creating a sense of calm. This can trigger soothing hormones, which calm the body, and a positive circle is created as you begin to relax and breathe more slowly.
The mindful approach to breathing
But we don’t always need to change the way we breath or even the way we feel – this gentle awareness of shallow breathing and then turning our attention to the breath can cause the breath to deepen naturally over time.
Play with it for yourself and see.
Your breath accompanies you everywhere you go. It’s a resource to tap into and a place to come home to.
More on this in this Tedex talk by Emma Seppälä